About Me

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Bird Island, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands
I work as a Zoological Field Assistant, and am the 2009 Winter Base Commander, at Bird Island Research Station, one of the British Antarctic Survey's five research bases in Antarctica. The main remit of my job is seal fieldwork as part of BAS' Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme. Science has been carried out on Bird Island since 1958. I work with Antarctic fur seals and leopard seals, as well as assisting with the seabird fieldwork programme. Contact me on: ewanedwards at gmail dot com

Friday, 7 November 2008

07.11.2008 - Macaroni penguins

The macaroni penguins have returned after their winter at sea. Here are some photos.

Penguins 'porpoising' on their way to climb out of the water

A leopard seal, lying offshore in wait for an easy snack

The macaronis have to contend with some huge waves - a washing machine at the foot of the colony

It can take several attempts before they make a successful landing on solid rock

All wet and sleek, recently emerged from the sea

They are called macaroni penguins because of their gold crest...

...it is a reference to the 'dandies' of the 18th century, who would go to Italy on travels and return with fashionable blonde streaks in their hair...

The colony fills up fast - only two weeks ago this was a bare scree slope - now the noise and smell of the busy penguin colony is incredible

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Re: 06.11.2008 - Jetty Bog

Contrary to the belief of some, the seal under the toilet photo from the post below was NOT Photoshopped! It is a real photograph!

06.11.2008 - Full circle

Having arrived on Bird Island on November 4th 2007, I have now been here a full year - not quite halfway through my time South, but then again I don't want to make it sound like I am longing to come home. In fact, quite the opposite. I feel quite at home here on our little rock in the Southern Ocean. It has been fascinating to see the island go 'full-circle'. Last November I arrived at the same time as the first bull fur seals, and seeing their return to the beaches in the last few days has brought to completion a fascinating years cycle.

Adult male Antarctic fur seal beside the fuel drums

Over the next few weeks, as the short summer peaks and then fades at these southern latitudes, we shall witness once again the explosion of life that makes Bird Island so special - the first eggs have already been laid around the island (northern giant petrels, gentoo penguins, grey-headed albatrosses and the tiny South Georgia pipits are the first breeders) and soon these will be hatching. The first fur seal pups are expected from the middle of November, making the beaches inaccessible except to the bravest of folk.

Some juvenile fur seals play-fight at the shore

It will be a few weeks yet before the wandering albatrosses return to their nest sites, two years since they last bred, to begin another year-long task of raising a single chick, which will hopefully help halt the decline in numbers of wanderers, that have been so badly hit by irresponsible fishing practices. This years chicks are starting to look more like birds, after waiting on their nests throughout the winter, insulated by a thick coat of down that they are now shedding, making way for feathers. By Christmas, most will have fledged.

After our quiet winter with only four on base from mid-April until mid-September, our numbers swelled, first to six, then to eight, before dropping back to six again with the departure of the BBC crew. It is always nice to see new faces, which always bring a new dynamic to life on the island. The arrival of the BAS ship on November 22nd will bring numbers on base back up again, including the arrival of two of next years wintering team, who we are keen to meet! Derren and I by that stage will be the 'old hands' on BI, as Fabrice will have departed.

An adult male fur seal guards the main door into the base

The weather has turned altogether more summery, with melting snow and ice except on the craggy slopes of La Roche above us. Summery, however, does not necessarily mean warm, and it is possible to have flurries of snow at any time throughout the year. However during the long, light evenings of the midsummer period it is sometimes easy to forget the gnarly extremes of the winter, which already seem long ago. The weather in summer is apparently more changable - whereas in winter we could have several days of settled weather, summer is a time for the proverbial 'four seasons in a day'.
The gentoo penguins have returned to the kitchen door this year - we are waiting to see whether nest building attempts lead to eggs and eventually chicks on our doorstep!

06.11.2008 - SSB

The Special Study Beach fur seal population study began once again on November 1st. It has been running continuously in its present form since the 1980s and is one of the most complete demographic studies of seals anywhere in the world.

SSB November 1st - no seals yet...

It is comprised of three main parts: giving the territory-holding male animals individual paint marks so that they can be tracked throughout the season, as well as taking genetics samples; counting and identifying (through the use of flipper tags and implanted microchips) the females as they arrive to pup; and counting, marking with flipper tags and microchips and taking birth weights and genetic samples from the newborn pups. We also post-mortem any pups that die, to ascertain a cause of death.
A newly returned bull fur seal has a big shake as he emerges from the sea

The seal team (this season, myself and Jaume) visit the beach every day at 09:00, and twice-daily (09:00 and 17:00) once the first pup is born, and this continues until a week after the last pup is born on the beach - usually the first week of January. It is a short but very intense season - during the peak period (Dec 1 - Dec 15) we can be on the beach for as much as 8 hours per day.

Thus far only a few bull seals have returned. The females will start to arrive by the middle of the month, with pups very soon after. The number of animals on the beach each day builds to a peak around Dec 10th and by 15th the hardest period is over and things start to calm down. By then, many of the mothers are at sea on foraging trips, the males are starting to disappear after six weeks fighting for territories, and the older pups have started to explore further from their birthplaces!

SSB November 6th - the first few territory holders, with individual paint marks

The beach is about 1.5x the size of a tennis court, but incredibly is the birthplace of over 700 pups each year. It is almost impossibly crowded, and the only way we can work there is by means of an aerial gantry constructed of scaffolding, allowing us to work close to but at a safe distance from the seals. There is a small wendy house for storage of the kit, and to allow us the opportunity to get out of the worst of the weather.

Last year was the third-most successful year (in terms of numbers of pups) for a decade, with 736 pups born (769 was the recent record). If this year approaches that number of births, then it will be the third 'good' year in a row. This suggests that the at-sea foraging conditions for the Bird Island predators are very good at this time.

It is a lovely bit of work - hard on the body and mind (physically strenuous work and long hours) but wonderful spending time in such close proximity to the seals. Although the endangered wandering albatrosses steal the show on Bird Island, surely most people's memories, especially of visitors during the height of the summer, will be filled with the antics of the handsome, intelligent and beautiful fur seals.

06.11.2008 - The jetty bog

Dunny, outhouse, cludgie, bog, john... whatever your name for it, the lavatory is an important facility in anyones home. Although we have indoor toilets on Bird Island these days, a relic remains from the days when running water was a rare commodity in the hut...

The jetty bog in winter

The 'jetty bog', as it is known, is the only toilet on Bird Island with a window. As the name suggests, is located at the end of the scaffolding jetty, and the convenience of indoor WCs means that it doesn't get as much use these days as in the past. During peak seal season, getting to the end of the jetty is requires considerable effort and concentration, as the fur seals congregate, pup and viciously defend territories on the walkway itself.

Seal in the surf by the jetty

But it is worth it. Going to the loo becomes a real accomplishment, and you are treated to the incredible sights, sounds and smells of the wildlife as you go about your business...!

View from the loo, looking right...

...and looking left

And then, now and again, the effort is rewarded by the kind of experience that no one would ever believe if you told them...

A young male elephant seal comes to have a look
at what is going on above his head!

Monday, 27 October 2008

27.10.2008 - Winter Review part 2

Gentoo penguins crowd Johnson Beach at sunset

Coming ashore in huge numbers...

Sunset on the ski slope

Fur seals play in the snow

Sunset over South Georgia - leopard seal on ice in the middleground

Ski route, marked in red, from La Roche to base

Skiing high on the eastern slopes of La Roche, in Mountain Cwm

Post-winter-haircut, skiing in Mountain Cwm

Ski area on the SW slopes of La Roche

Snowboarding on La Roche

After midwinter, of course, the days start to grow longer. This meant we had more time to get out and about to enjoy the island at its wintery finest. Winter sports were popular, and a shallow-sloping coire on the SW slopes of La Roche, just above Wanderer Ridge, provided the closest and best conditions, only half an hours walk up from base. During July, August and early September, it was possible to ski directly to Freshwater Beach, and the back door of the base, from a height of around 200m on La Roche, via the stream beds and tussac meadows of Wanderer Valley.

Around the beginning of September I made a bit of an expedition into Mountain Cwm, a scree-lined coire towards the eastern end of the island, overlooking the narrowest bit of Bird Sound, separating us from the South Georgia mainland. The skiing conditions out here, where the slopes rarely (if ever) saw the sun, were a mixture of fresh, wind-blown snow and hard packed icy conditions, coupled with the steeper slope made for some brilliant, exciting skiing. Always in the back of your mind, however, is the fact that we are at least 5 days from the nearest hospital, so we aren't so inclined to push it too hard!

The leopard seal fieldwork kept me busy most days, with a considerable increase in the number of sightings from the previous year, owing perhaps to a relatively large sea ice extent further South. On calm sunny days, sometimes eight or nine different seals were seen, but when the weather was lousy, or there wasn't much ice around, the seals would tend to stay in the water, largely out of sight. I managed to put tags on several of the animals, which makes identifying them easier when they return in subsequent years.

At the beginning of every month we do an all-island wandering albatross census: this involves checking all the nests that were marked by Derren at the beginning of the year to check whether the chicks are still surviving. Once they hatch from their eggs, survival of wandering albatrosses is very good, although the numbers have declined from 1500 nests each year twenty years ago, to only around 800 these days. The census allows us the perfect opportunity to go out for a good tramp around the hills, checking on the fast-growing chicks.

In addition to the fieldwork (much reduced from its summer peak) there are various office tasks to do, such as the compilation of various reports for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and our own annual Bird and Mammal Review, detailing interesting wildlife sightings from the past year, which gets circulated internally at BAS HQ in Cambridge. But aside from the work, the winter is a very fun time on Bird Island for relaxing, hobbies, and fun evenings.

We organised several themed nights during the winter, usually on Saturday nights (our weekly three-course feast, washed down by several gin and tonics) and on a few occassions we fired up the hot tub - this is an old water tank that sits outdoors on the walkway, with comfortable space for four people but not much more, which can be filled with hot water from the tank and is a really nice way to spend a cold dark winter's evening. We had several barbecues outdoors under the stars. It is important to have time to relax during the winter, as the summer field seasons are so busy.

We continued skiing and snowboarding into September, and Flea celebrated his birthday high on the slopes of La Roche, albeit in the fog, getting a few late-season runs in. In fact, I was skiing only last week, and the base seems to be holding up. My intention is to get some skiing in at the beginning of November, and if at all possible, a few turns on Christmas day, after midsummer!

The arrival of the Golden Fleece at the beginning of September brought to an end the official winter, and in fact thereafter the weather was fairly mild. Our winter minimum temperature, which came about on the night we had a barbecue, was -6.7deg C, nothing like the extremes of temperature seen further South, or even at similar Northern latitudes near my home in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, but during these cold, dry periods we could see temperatures remaining below freezing for several days or weeks at a time. We didn't see temperatures above +2deg C between May and September.

27.10.2008 - Winter Review part 1

Tagging a leopard seal, Freshwater Beach

Midwinter photo 1

Midwinter photo 2

Midwinter Games 2008

Testing the rescue sledge on the beach

Flea (base technician and winter base commander) pumps water from the stream

Derren and I brandish our ice axes on the summit of La Roche, July 2008

Its not the North Face of the Eiger, but the winter conditions meant we could play on some frozen waterfalls. Here, Derren leads me on the cliffs of the south coast

Freshwater Inlet from Cave Crag (jetty and base visible); South Georgia behind

Icebergs in Bird Sound, from near the Special (seal) Study Beach

Leopard seal has a stretch and yawn whilst hauled out on a bergy bit

Tonk and Freshwater Bay from Molly Hill

Various landmarks from Wanderer Ridge

The base in a snow shower

Winter already feels like a distant memory, but it was a hugely enjoyable time. One of the true advantages of a Bird Island winter is that, unlike Halley and Rothera further South, we never lose the sun completely. The days around the end of June (midwinter) are short and gloomy, and in truth the sun never actually hits the base itself (as it barely rises above the cliffs to the north), but at least we have daylight, and it is possible to get into the sun if you walk up the hill to the meadows or the slopes of La Roche.

Winter began for real on April 29th, when Fabrice arrived back from a dental trip to the Falklands. The fishery patrol vessel took away Chris, who had been visiting doing some plumbing work, and returned Fabrice so that we could all settle into our winter proper. By the end of May we'd seen our first big dump of snow and the first of the hauled-out leopard seals which would become regular visitors over the next few months. The days grew shorter rapidly and this meant that it was dark well after we awoke in the mornings.

June was on the whole not a very snowy month, although near the beginning we had some stunning crisp, cold and clear days when the bay filled with a mixture of brash ice (from disintegrating glacier ice (icebergs) offshore) and pancake ice - newly formed sea ice which starts as small round plates on the surface of the sea, the edges turned up by constant rubbing together. This never froze solid enough to support our weight but it was enough to support the weight of some smaller fur seals.

Midwinters Day is traditionally a big celebration for wintering teams in Antarctica. We received messages from the many stations all over the icy continent and its offlying islands, from almost all nationalities that maintain a wintering presence: Australia, Brazil, Chile, USA, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand to name a few - as well as our British colleagues at Base R (Rothera), Base Z (Halley) and King Edward Point, on the South Georgia mainland. As Christmas Day falls in the middle of summer, Midwinter feels more christmassy than Christmas!

The day itself (June 21) started with a big cooked breakfast, and once it got light (10:45am) we headed outdoors, armed with flasks of mulled wine and mince pies, for the annual Midwinter Highland Games! Events included crossbow archery, snowball target shooting, welly-wanging (hold a wellington boot in your teeth and throw it as far as possible!), hurling the haggis and tossing the caber. We were outside for over three hours, dressed in kilts fashioned from old tartan shirts. Fabrice clearly relished his role as the old man of the island, by making up the rules as he went along!

Our annual midwinters day swim had to be postponed on two accounts: firstly, the large accumulation of sea ice in the bay would have made jumping off the jetty a painful affair, and secondly, the presence of a hungry-looking leopard seal lurking in the shallows near the jetty was enough to put anyone off. These animals are fierce predators and have big teeth, and our seal-like appearance after several weeks of Bird Island winter rations may have been too tempting for a leopard seal to resist.

Later that day we enjoyed a huge feast, several courses that had us eating through until after midnight! Afterwards Fabrice dressed as Santa and produced some gifts that had been sent by friends and family last year on the ship and stored secretly until midwinter. This was a really nice surprise as we hadn't been expecting it. We listened to the midwinter broadcast to all wintering FIDs (BAS 'South' personnel, from the days when the British Antarctic Survey was known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, or FIDS) on the BBC World Service, and heard greetings from friends and family at home.

During the rest of the midwinter week we enjoyed many fun events, including a beer festival (with 20 varieties of ales, lagers and ciders, including our own Albatross Ale homebrew!); a pub crawl, where we each outfitted one part of the base as a pub in a style of our choice; a 24 Marathon, where we watched a whole series of 24 (the US TV show starring Kiefer Sutherland) during one day (07:00 to 07:00 the next day); as well as the usual mix of fieldwork and base duties. The end of June was a very busy time for leopard seal sightings, with 11 seen on one day, and the weather was largely settled and cold.